Entertainment

01.18.14

Want To Know What America Thinks of Itself? Watch Jack Ryan on Wall Street

Watching all five Jack Ryan movies will give you America’s image of itself over the last 25 years.

When alien archeologists on a mission to understand what America was like at the turn of the 21st century land on a lifeless Earth millions of years from now, they will have no shortage of artifacts to examine. The collected speeches of Barack Obama, perhaps. Homeland. The results of the 2010 midterm elections. “Flyover States” by Jason Aldean. And maybe that video of George W. Bush strutting around on an aircraft carrier in his flight suit. 

Or they could just binge on the Jack Ryan movies. 

On Friday, Paramount released Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the latest chapter in the cinematic adventures of Tom Clancy’s iconic CIA-analyst-turned-action-hero—a brainy paperpusher who wants nothing more than to continue writing clever memos about Russian naval strategy but for some reason keeps finding himself in a position to save the world from certain doom. 

To prepare for the occasion, I went back and rewatched all four of the previous Ryan pictures. I also attended an advance screening of Shadow Recruit. What I discovered is that if you want to know how America’s image of itself has changed over the last quarter-century of history, Ryan pretty much explains it all—and Shadow Recruit is no exception. 

Consistency is not one of Jack Ryan’s strong suits, at least on screen. His appearance, for one thing, is always changing. First he resembled Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October (1990). Then he morphed into Harrison Ford for Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). Next he aged backwards, becoming Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears (2002). And now in Shadow Recruit, which attempts to revive the franchise for a new generation of moviegoers, Ryan looks a lot like Chris Pine—a guy who already has some experiencing rebooting classic roles

Ryan’s mission is always changing as well. In Red October it involves a rogue Russian sub; in Patriot Games, the IRA is his target. First he’s a young, in-over-his-head analyst. Then he’s a retired tourist. Then he’s Deputy Director of the CIA. Then he’s a young, in-over-his-head analyst again. Then he’s a CIA operative posing as a Wall Street banker. 

This big-screen inconsistency—Hollywood being Hollywood— has long frustrated fans of Clancy’s original books, which are very clear about the details of Ryan’s life and work. But that same inconsistency is why the cinematic Ryan has become such a good barometer of America’s changing moods and circumstances since the end of the Cold War. To wit: 

In The Hunt for Red October, Marko Alexandrovich Ramius, a Lithuanian submarine captain in the Soviet Navy, commandeers a new Typhoon-class vessel equipped with “a revolutionary stealth propulsion system that makes audio detection by sonar extremely difficult” and heads straight for the United States. The Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that Ramius is a madman hellbent on attacking America; Jack Ryan is convinced that he is a disillusioned Communist seeking to defect. Jack Ryan is right. 

Written by Clancy in the early 1980s (when the Cold War was still raging) but not filmed until 1989 (when the Soviet Union was collapsing), Red October is a prescient parable about the fall of Communist Russia. Ramius presages Gorbachev—the war-weary Soviet leader who hijacks the ship of state and steers it toward the 21st century. And Ryan, as always, represents America itself—the intelligent, non-belligerent interpreter who must read the tea leaves and let history take its course. “Welcome to the New World,” Ryan tells Ramius at the end of the movie.  

As Ryan, Alec Baldwin had yet to settle into his comedic midlife groove as a husky corner-office asshole (see: Donaghy, Jack); he still comes across as a cocky, even callow young man, too pretty by half. Baldwin isn’t the best Ryan—that’s Ford by a wide margin—but his slick certainty nicely reflects the triumphalism of the Reagan years. And the threat Ryan faces mirrors America’s biggest fear circa 1989: that the USSR could still lash out somehow, even in its mortally wounded state. 

Harrison Ford’s Ryan films are transitional. In Patriot Games, Ryan, now retired from the CIA and on vacation in London with his wife and daughter, witnesses an IRA attack on the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is a distant cousin of the Queen, and leaps into action, killing one of the terrorists and foiling the plot. The surviving assailant, Sean Miller, spends the rest of the movie trying to murder Ryan and his family; he and his henchmen even travel to the United States (twice) to get their revenge. Meanwhile, in Clear and Present Danger, Ryan discovers and attempts to stop an illegal black-ops mission (secretly approved by the President himself) to assassinate the Columbian drug lord responsible for the death of one of the President’s fat-cat friends. 

Patriot Games was released at the tail end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency; Clear and Present Danger came out in the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term. The Cold War was over. The War on Terror had yet to begin. For much of the 1990s, the threat was no longer global, no longer existential. But Ford’s Ryan films reflect a real worry that, in such a vacuum, the U.S. could become its own worst enemy. Patriot Games is a metaphor about how U.S. meddling abroad—in Bosnia, in Africa, in South America—could come back to bite us at home: Ryan impulsively decides to interfere in The Troubles and terrorists end up invading his Maryland home as a result. And the only “clear and present danger” in its sequel is the President himself. 

Ford isn’t the sort of actor who disappears into a role. His characters, like Gary Cooper’s or Cary Grant’s, always seem like versions of himself, and that’s the point. He’s the perfect Jack Ryan, especially for the scattershot Clinton years—tired of world conflict and ready to move on, but constantly ensnared, against his will, in some struggle or scandal. He’s mature, genuine; a family man under siege. America in the 1990s saw itself the same way.  

The worst Ryan film is 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, so the less time spent recalling it, the better. This was Ryan for the post 9/11 world. A Syrian peasant finds an Israeli nuclear bomb that’s been buried in the desert since 1973. He sells it to a South African arms dealer. The arms dealer sells it to a mysterious neo-Nazi cabal, which then detonates it in Baltimore. The point? To frame Moscow for the attack, trigger a war between Russia and America, and step in to rule the world–or what remains of it—after the two geopolitical Goliaths annihilate each other with their nuclear arsenals. 

Ignore all the nonsense about the Nazis, and it’s easy to see The Sum of all Fears for what it is: a War on Terrorism fever dream about the global havoc that would ensue if some stateless bad guys—Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, whoever—got ahold of a loose nuclear weapon. Affleck is far and away the least engaging Ryan; he’s a smart guy who’s never been particularly skilled at conveying intelligence on screen, and he seems almost sleepy in the role. But even Affleck makes a certain kind of sense: a new, younger Ryan—an uncomplicated, post-collegiate puppy-dog Ryan—for a new era of American adventure overseas.  

Which brings us, finally, to Shadow Recruit. Each Jack Ryan movie departed from the Clancy book on which it was based to some degree. Shadow Recruit, however, is the first Ryan picture that isn’t based on a Clancy book at all. The result is perhaps the franchise’s most revealing installment. In the beginning, Shadow Recruit seems like it’s going to be another post-9/11 movie; Ryan, who is studying at the London School of Economics when the planes hit the Twin Towers, immediately enlists in the Marines and ships off to Afghanistan. But then his helicopter is downed and his back destroyed, and the film becomes something else entirely: an action movie about globalism and the Great Recession. 

The plot is straightforward. When the U.S. refuses to back a Russian oil pipeline proposal on the U.N. security council, shadowy forces in Moscow initiate a scheme code-named Lamentations. It doesn’t involve a submarine. It doesn’t involve nukes. Now it’s all about money. A Russian oligarch named Viktor Cherevin (played by Kenneth Branagh with a thick Boris Badenov accent and a tip of the cap to Laurence Olivier’s Christian Szell) plans to detonate a truck bomb on Wall Street and simultaneously sell off billions of American dollars, crashing the U.S. economy and ushering in a new world order with Russia on top. After more than half a decade of high unemployment—and the death of Osama bin Laden—we’re no longer so afraid of Al Qaeda; economic catastrophe and American decline frighten us more.  

Enter Jack Ryan. After Ford, Chris Pine is the best of the bunch. He shares Ford’s homespun decency, but he seems quicker, sharper, less avuncular; of all the Ryans, Pine is the most believably brilliant, despite his pretty-boy looks. In Shadow Recruit, Ryan is still a CIA analyst, but he’s no longer a naval expert; instead he’s a member of the agency’s financial terrorism unit, undercover on Wall Street. Computer savvy and financially literate, yet still handy in a fistfight: this is the latest Jack Ryan. It also happens to be exactly how we want to see ourselves right now.